At first glance, hockey and the Gulf Coast don’t seem to mix. Sure, there’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, a dominant NHL franchise, but the sun and skates are not two words that typically go together. However, there is something that only those who have played the game can attest to–they know just how easy hockey is to fall in love with–and how hard it can be to leave behind. That’s why in 2021, Bradley Gustafson, a lifelong hockey player, started the Manatee Ball Hockey League, with the hopes of giving his then four-year-old son an entryway into the game he loves so much. “My son was just obsessed with hockey and wanted to play it with other kids,” says Gustafson. “We had him in the Learn to Skate program, but after a couple of years he wasn’t really taking to it and still just really wanted to play hockey. I figured he couldn’t be the only kid that wanted to play hockey but wasn’t the best on skates yet–that was the driving factor behind creating the program as a whole.”

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And so the process of creating a youth ball hockey league began. Gustafson already had a location–he had been frequenting the Lightning Made ball hockey rink in Lakewood Ranch with his son for some time. The next step was figuring out, well, how to actually start a youth hockey league from the ground up. “When I made the decision to move forward and try to start up a league for the community with the goal of bringing a high quality youth sports organization at an entry level price, we reached out to the officials at Manatee County who said we’d be happy to rent you a rink/facility but we don’t actually have the staff to run a youth sports league,” says Gustafson. “I reached out to the Tampa Bay Lightning–who have been invaluable throughout this whole process–and said if I pay for and design our logos and put the work in to get this going would you guys be able to support and they said yes. They’ve always provided free sticks and balls to all the new kids that sign up for our program which kind of offsets the expense of some of the things that get the league going.”

Just like that, the Manatee Ball Hockey League was off to the races. Well, sort of. A hiccup with their social media made promoting the league more difficult than expected, causing registration numbers for the first year to be a little lower than Gustafson hoped for, at just 36 kids and three coaches. “The first season couldn’t have happened without the support of my wife,” says Gustafson. “We were looking for around 50 kids and ended up a fair amount lower than that. I wasn’t sure if I should just give all the parents a refund and just scrap the program, but she encouraged me to push forward.”

In retrospect, however, Gustafson admits that the limited number of participants may have been a good thing–with just three coaches and 100 kids, it would have been overwhelming. Starting small allowed Gustafson to grow the league organically, allowing plenty of space for both parents and their children alike. With the limited number of participants, Gustafson was able to create a happy medium for the league: he split participants into two age groups, nine and under and 10 and over, with 18 players a piece. To keep teams balanced kids were split up into different teams every week, one wearing the signature MBHL jersey with the logo on the front and their name and number on the back and the other team wearing reversible pinnies. “The parents loved the idea of having their kids play with all of the other kids, there’s no animosity in the league because of it and kids got to experience different coaching styles as well.”

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In MBHL’s second season, the program doubled its registration numbers from 36 participants to 60 and created a new 15 and under division. “After our second season, we added a summer program where we did a weeknight clinic and went from 60 to 80 to 100, eventually adding an adult league as well. We also have a Little Manatee’s division for 3-5 year olds who have never held a hockey stick before, which is a 45 minute skills and drills clinic that we do first thing in the morning,” says Gustafson. “We originally had two divisions with two age groups and now we have five divisions, each with their own teams, over 140 players and 12 to 18 coaches a season.”

The secret to MBHL’s explosive growth? It’s just plain fun–for both children and adults. Ball hockey provides an easy, low-cost entryway into the sport of hockey, trading the expensive cost of equipment, skates and ice time for shin guards, a facemask and a will-do attitude. While hockey may not seem like a natural fit on the Gulf Coast, where sports like baseball and soccer can be played year-round, it turns out that it was just about giving people a chance to see how fun the sport really is. “The goal of the program is to help grow the sport of hockey. Since we’ve started the program, we’ve put over 40 kids in skates, many of which would’ve never considered playing ice hockey before,” says Gustafson. “I have had parents come up to me at the end of the season that tell me this has changed their lives, that they’re hockey families now. Hockey is unfortunately an expensive sport to play and it’s hard to get your foot in the door with it. To my knowledge, we’re the most cost- effective sports league in the area and we just want to keep bringing the community together.”